Citizen scientists bring more critters online

Back in October we took a look at the phenomenon of citizen science that has really taken off over the last decade, particularly with the internet and smart devices allowing people to contribute to projects online.

Since then two big citizen science events have taken place in Australia – the inaugural ACT Bioblitz and the Great Koala Count in NSW.

The ACT Centenary Bioblitz, organised by Molonglo Catchment Group in partnership with the Atlas of Living Australia, saw citizen scientists trekking around Canberra’s Black Mountain Reserve surveying the local biodiversity – birds, insects, mammals, fish and more. Over 450 people turned out to participate during the last weekend in October. Molonglo Catchment Group has released their wrap up of the event, saying a total of 322 different species were recorded from a total of 808 sightings. We were there to capture the action. Check out this video to see what a bioblitz is all about:

Then in November, the Great Koala Count took place in NSW, organised by the NSW Parks Association in partnership with the Atlas. Over a period of ten days citizen scientists surveyed their local environments and used a special app to record sightings of koalas and, importantly, an absence of koalas. Almost 800 citizen scientists took part in the count which generated 1000 records – and made international headlines.

The biodiversity data captured by both these events will be entered into the Atlas of Living Australia where it will become part of Australia’s online biodiversity record. Here it will meet with data that has been collected by scientists or stored in biological collections over previous decades, even centuries. This old data, often existing as hand written notes, is being painstakingly transcribed into digital format for the Atlas by yet more citizen scientists. November saw a milestone 50,000th task transcribed by an Atlas volunteer and the 500th volunteer signed on to help – the most prolific volunteer, Megan, has completed 10,000 of those tasks!

Ok great, so all that hard earned data is in the database… but what happens then?

Koala head and shoulder shot

Koala. Image: Flickr/Alberto Ifes

As the Atlas’ Director John La Salle mentions in the video above, biodiversity surveys provide a snapshot of what species are living in a particular place at a particular time – or in the koalas’ case where they are living and in what sort of numbers. Once you have that baseline established you can measure any changes with greater accuracy and confidence, such as any decline in koala distribution, and therefore carry out more informed environmental management for example. And when you transcribe old records into a digital format and enter them in the database you can also make comparisons with the past.

The Atlas is a data scientist’s paradise and as the database grows so does its potential for use. Some researchers have been demonstrating how the spatial portal of the Atlas could be used to determine which environments in Australia are best suited for producing great Pinot Noir, or those that may be environmentally sensitive to a wind farm because of the bird and bat species present – these case studies and others give an insight into the Atlas’ capabilities.

You can add your own sightings of species you come across at any time using the OzAtlas app or through the online portal.

Citizens, lend me your science-ing

Millions of people around the world are proving that you don’t need to be a professional scientist to be involved in scientific discovery. The movement of volunteers signing on to contribute to science projects is known as ‘citizen science’ and, although it’s not new, there has been a great rise in its popularity over the last decade ‑ thanks largely to digital technology developments and the growing number of people connected to the internet (over 2 billion people were connected in 2012).

A spiral galaxy and a star

An image of a galaxy that has been catalogued on Galaxy Zoo. Image: Gwydion M. Williams/Flickr

One of the biggest citizen science success stories is Zooniverse, an online citizen science portal with 872,972 people (at time of writing) taking part in its projects worldwide. It began in 2007 as Galaxy Zoo, a website where netizens could come to help scientists sift through and catalogue millions of images of, you guessed it, galaxies. It proved more popular than they had anticipated; there was obviously an itch for doing science in the online community that needed a good scratch. In the wake of that success, Zooniverse was established as an expanded format that provided a wide range of science projects for people to work on in the areas of space, nature, climate, biology and humanities. If you have an internet connection you can join in.

Citizen science is not taking place solely online. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of projects around the world that recruit ordinary folks to go out and monitor nature. One of the oldest running programs is The Monarch Program, where volunteers learn to tag monarch butterflies to improve understanding of their migration patterns and how these are being affected by things like human encroachment and climate change.

The list of citizen science projects is long and growing longer. Smartphone apps and online portals are helping scientists connect with citizen scientists around the world and promote the sharing of data.

If you are starting to feel the itch for some home grown citizen science, then let me help you scratch it. Next week in Canberra, from 25–27 October 2013, the ACT Centenary Bioblitz will be taking place in Black Mountain Reserve ‑ home to at least 100 bird species, 500 plant species and 5000 insect species (not to mention the mammals and reptiles). Guided field trips will be departing from CSIRO’s Discovery Centre to survey the area’s wildlife and experts will be on hand to assist with species identification. These survey teams will be on the lookout for frogs, birds, bats, moths, insects and rare plants, among other things, and photos and data collected will contribute to the Atlas of Living Australia ‑ an online digital database of Australia’s biodiversity.

small spider with coloured abdomen

An amateur naturalist, Stuart Harris, uncovered a new species of peacock spider in Canberra and had it named after him (Maratus harrisi). Image: Jurgen Otto/Flickr

If you can’t be in Canberra, you can always contribute species sightings in your own local area directly on the Atlas’s website and with the smartphone app, OzAtlas. Online communities, such as Bowerbird, have sprung up around the Atlas’ database that allow users not just to upload their sightings but also to interact with a community of people to identify species and interrogate the data.

If the outdoors is not for you, the Atlas also has a variety of online projects where you can volunteer your time to help digitise field notes, diaries and specimen labels.

Contributions by individuals and through events like the Bioblitz, combined with the digitisation of existing natural history collections, have grown the Atlas to over 40 million records. This data is already being used by researchers and will contribute to conservation planning and environmental management and can help predict what future species distributions will look like.

Reserve a spot in one of the ACT Centenary Bioblitz surveys here:

Contribute to the conversation on Twitter using #BioblitzACT

And keep an eye out for future citizen science events. In November the Great Koala Count will be taking place in New South Wales, following the success of a count in South Australia last year.

Koalas, stand up and be counted

Koala in tree

Ever spotted a koala when you’re not at the zoo?

By Lucy Mercer-Mapstone

At coffee with a friend recently we chatted about our latest smartphone app discovery while tweeting about the conversation, and sharing the link via Facebook. It occurred to me that I do a lot more with my phone these days than makes calls and send texts. Thanks to these nifty little tools we can identify and purchase the song playing in the café, edit the photo we just took, find out exactly what time our bus will arrive, and practically anything else in between.

Koala count app

Count those little furry bears with our nifty app

With worldwide smartphone sales estimated to reach 686 million by the end of 2012, it seems that many people are embracing the new technology. As the technological capability progresses so too does the functionality and variety of apps that they support. And science is getting on board.

smartphone app released this week is turning citizens into scientists. Citizen science is becoming an increasingly popular phenomenon and with the technology so easily accessible, why not? All you need is a smartphone, a keen eye, and a case of the curiosities.

The app has been developed by us and the Atlas of Living Australia to support South Australia’s Great Koala Count, which will take place on Wednesday, 28th November. The day will see South Australians don their citizen science hats and go forth to collect a count of Australia’s most loveable marsupial – the koala.  The project will utilise the manpower of society and smartphone technology to help scientists understand a bit more about our favourite Australian mascot.

Our research scientist, Dr Andrew Baker, has been involved in developing the app and believes that it is a really exciting new way of doing science. “To ensure reliable results and accurate conclusions, we need a sufficient amount of data for our research,” he said.

“The more data we have, the more reliable our results. But scientists, of course, can’t be everywhere at once. By using apps like this, we can get around this problem as it means that we’ve got lots of people on the ground taking verifiable observations at lots of locations in a short period of time.”

And the app makes taking these observations a breeze. Snap a photo, record your observations, the phone’s inbuilt GPS records your specific location and, hey presto, you’ve got your first data point. The team even made a video to demonstrate the app in action:

The applications for this technology and software development are endless, and the practicality of using phones as portable data recorders points to a strong future in this field. They remove the need to transfer recordings from notebooks to computers, which is time-consuming and increases the risk of error. They provide verifiable data through photos and GPS recordings. And perhaps best of all, they allow everyone from kindergarten kids to retired professors of ecology to get involved in scientific research about the natural world around us.

If you’d like to get involved head to

The Great Koala Count is a joint initiative of the Barbara Hardy Institute of the University of South AustraliaABC Local Radio SA, the SA Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, the Adelaide and Mt Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board, CSIRO and the Atlas of Living Australia.


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